By Medea Benjamin and Charles Davis
With the U.S. economy in the tank and governments at all levels facing massive budget shortfalls, politicians left and right are seeking ways to curb spending. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker wants to eliminate collective bargaining rights and the decent pay that goes with them. President Barack Obama’s budget includes halving the home-heating oil subsidy poor households depend on.
As Republicans and Democrats propose cuts in programs that actually benefit their increasingly impoverished constituents, though, they agree there’s one area of the budget that’s not to be touched: the annual $3 billion subsidy U.S. taxpayers provide to the Israeli military.
One of the biggest defenders of the handout is House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. “There will be no cuts to security assistance to the Jewish State of Israel,” her chief of staff declared in a recent letter to House Republicans. The rest of the U.S. foreign aid budget, including assistance for Iraqi refugees and food aid to the world’s poorest people, is fair game. But the Florida congresswoman insists we must help Israel maintain its “Qualitative Military Edge.”
And congressional Democrats have her back.
Illinois Democrat Jan Schakowsky, for instance — a leading member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus — has drafted a letter, cosigned by California Democrat Anna Eshoo, warning that the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia “have the potential to add to the very real security challenges faced by Israel.” Reducing or “otherwise endangering aid to our ally” would be “unproductive,” she adds, encouraging her colleagues to tell Obama they “strongly support… providing $3.075 billion in assistance to Israel.” (For those shivering at home, that’s more assistance than Obama is proposing to offer Americans trying to keep their houses warm.)
This liberal appeal for Israeli military aid, meanwhile, is being sent out under the auspices of J Street, a group that positions itself as a left-leaning answer to AIPAC. But J Street staff we spoke with at their recent conference were hard-pressed to explain why U.S. taxpayers should fund a right-wing Israeli government that continues to build settlements and maintains an inhumane siege of Gaza.
So it’s left to folks like libertarian Congressman Ron Paul and his son, Kentucky Senator and Tea Party favorite Rand Paul, to call for ending aid to Israel. In a February 4 interview with ABC News, Rand Paul said of Israel, “I think that their per capita income is greater than probably three-fourths of the rest of the world. Should we be giving free money or welfare to a wealthy nation? I don’t think so.”
Indeed, Israel has the 24th largest economy in the world, and ranks 15th among 169 nations on the UN Human Development Index, which makes it a “very highly developed” nation.
Yet what thanks did Senator Paul get for his call to save the U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars? A torrent of criticism, even from J Street, which called on Republicans — and their donors — “to repudiate his comments and ensure American leadership around the world is not threatened by this irresponsible proposal.”
Paul’s fellow Tea Partiers aren’t any better. Of the 87 freshmen House Republicans elected on platforms of cut-baby-cut, at least three-fourths have now signed a letter declaring that, “As Israel faces threats from escalating instability in Egypt” — where have we heard that line of argument before? — “security assistance to Israel… has never been more important.” Subsidies are for militaries, you see, not poor people.
But even without U.S. funding, Israel would still spend $11 billion-plus on its military, more than all but 20 other nations in the world spend on their armed forces — and hundreds of millions of dollars more than the Islamic Republic of Iran, despite having just 1/10th the population. Throw in a couple — as in, couple hundred — little things called nuclear weapons, and, for better or worse, the Jewish state’s “Qualitative Military Advantage” isn’t going anywhere.
But you wouldn’t know that listening to the folks at J Street or to liberals like Jan Schakowsky, who hysterically cite the specter of Arab democracy to advocate billions in subsidies for a government that openly flouts international law. So much for their concern about human rights. And so much for being progressive. Indeed, with liberals like these, the Netanyahu government and its allies at AIPAC are likely asking themselves: Who needs the Tea Party?
Medea Benjamin is co-founder of CODEPINK and Global Exchange. Charles Davis is a journalist.